How to talk to our kids about race

Telling kids to "be kind to everyone" doesn't help solve racism--but there are things that we can do. An interview with anti-racism educator and podcaster Jasmine Bradshaw.

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I can’t say enough good things about this week’s interview with Jasmine Bradshaw, the founder of First Name Basis, one of my FAVORITE podcasts about race and inclusivity. Her podcast is geared toward learning how to talk about race at home, especially with our kids. Jasmine and I talk about the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, why addressing racism makes better communities for everyone--not just people of color, why “being kind” doesn’t help solve racism and how to break “white solidarity” instead to be better neighbors and friends. And, of course, how to get started talking to your kids about race. 

I don’t talk about it much publicly, but this last year has been hard on my heart as a mother of a black child. It has been ROUGH. It’s awful to think about the safety and well being of my child and husband every time I see the horrible violence against black people in our country. At the same time, I know I’ll spend a lifetime filling the holes in my own education and learning to undo and address the biases and prejudices and that I’ve been socialized with my whole life. It’s a lot. Jasmine’s podcast has gotten me through some dark weeks this year and I have learned a lot from her and her research.

She begins every episode by reminding the listener that teaching our children to be inclusive and anti-racist starts inside our homes: “First Name Basis is designed to give you the confidence that you need to be a leader in your family and change-maker in your community, to reflect our values of inclusion and compassion.” But she’s also real about the grief that comes with our country’s ongoing violence and overdue reckoning with race, and she shares some powerful stories about her own family in our conversation. This resolute hope plus real talk is the exact energy that I need in 2021.

She is a black biracial woman, a Mormon, and an anti-racism educator, which is NOT an easy space to hold, and she does it with grace. If you’re looking to learn how to talk to your family or kids about race, or learn more for yourself about the history and context for race in this country in a researched and family-friendly way--you’re going to love Jasmine and her work.  

You can subscribe to Jasmine’s First Name Basis podcast here, follow Jasmine on Instagram here, and subscribe to her Patreon community here.  Her Bite-sized Black History program for kids with audio lessons and coloring pages can be found here. Bonus: she just released a Juneteenth episode for this weekend here.

Can you talk a little bit about how you got into this work and your podcast? I’m sure that people are surprised to learn that you are a black woman and Mormon who does anti-racism work.

Growing up in Arizona, in a very conservative white neighborhood, I just felt like there were so many things that I was always explaining to people. And even though my audience is mostly white, my purpose is to make this for people of color, for black people specifically, because I found myself in so many predominantly white spaces. I wished that there was something that I could just say, “Go listen to this. Go read this.” So I made the podcast to be just that. Even though I'm making it so that white people can hear it, I'm really making it for black people to take the burden off of them so that they're not always explaining everything. I think it was natural for me to get into anti-racism work just because I have so much practice explaining everything. 

I named the podcast “First Name Basis” because the research shows that if you know someone on a first name basis, you're less likely to harbor prejudice against them. But one of the interesting things that I've learned recently is that it doesn't actually work on a large-scale societal level. It works interpersonally, but not in large groups. One of my favorite quotes is from an activist and author, her name is Angela Davis, and she says, “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” Just being kind to people interpersonally to won’t combat racism, we have to learn about the history and systems of racism and break down the systems. 

And one of the things that I love about your podcast is that it gives listeners the tools to do this in their own homes--to normalize talking about race and how to create more just communities. And it seems like in the last year, especially since George Floyd’s murder, there’s more interest from white people to do this. People are like, what do we do about this?

But then racism is turned into something “political,” or people just move on. Can you talk about this current sense of urgency and if it’s really having an impact?

Michael Harriot, a writer for The Root, talks about studies that show that what needs to happen for big societal change is that people have to understand what's in it for them. I posted that quote from activist Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” And somebody sent me a message and was like, I don't see how your liberation and mine are bound. One of the biggest things about segregation that white people don't see is that they're missing things. They think that they can go their whole lives living around other white people, and not miss out on anything.  

Unfortunately, it seems like that’s how a lot of people feel, but they just don’t say it out loud. It feels like the attitude is: “This is your family's problem, and if I engage in it, then that's nice of me to bother with your problem.” Can you talk more about what white people miss out on when they are segregated, and how racism harms them, too?

I ask people to think concretely about what their values are for their family, and their kids. Most people value inclusion and compassion. And I think most people don’t like to be surrounded by inequality. Most people want their kids to live a really fulfilling life that includes lots of different types of people and cultures. And one thing that people really want is for their kids to not be racist, and know how to interact with a range of people. But in order for that to happen, you have to be around other people. It’s really hard to be anti -racist when you have no one to practice with. That’s part of the problem when white people say really bananas and inappropriate things to us, because they don't have practice talking to us. Research shows that little kids are internalizing racism from the time they're very young. There's a book called Anti- Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, and in the book they talk about “pre-prejudice” that begins in early childhood as young as toddlers. Racism, sexism--all these things are percolating based on their socialization. 

And so when we think about what we want for our kids, and how we want them to be inclusive, they need to be around people not just like them, and also have opportunities to see people in positions that aren't just subservient, like people who are bagging your groceries, or people who are fixing your tire. Tim Wise is an anti-racist educator who talks about how the real way that our children are going to develop these attitudes of inclusion and anti-racism is by seeing people of color in positions that mean something to them, like coaches, teachers, principals. People who are authority figures, who kids look up to and help them break down the societal norms that they've been taught. But that requires structural and systemic change, not just “being nice to everyone.” Because of the oppression of people of color, it’s hard for them to attain these positions, even though that would benefit black and white people in the community. 

We all miss out on social and economic benefits when people of color in our communities are oppressed. Heather McGhee writes about this in her amazing new book, The Sum of Us. The consequence of zero-sum thinking, that whites and blacks are on different teams, is that white voters often vote against supports that could benefit them, too, because they think others don’t deserve them--better schools, better healthcare, better pay, even public pools. Quality of life goes down for everyone, and without racism it goes up.

I also think that the visibility of the horrible racial injustice and violence that happens in the U.S. really takes an emotional and psychic toll on everyone, now that it’s finally starting to pierce white people’s reality. From my white community perspective, that's what happened with George Floyd. It really pierced people--including white people--and they felt horror.

Yet, much of the response to all that’s happened in the last year from my white peers has been talking about “being kind to everybody,” as you mentioned. It seems for a lot of white people, they think their role is to be nice to everybody, and teach their kids to be nice to everybody. Could you speak more on why being kind doesn’t do anything to address racism?

I hear this all the time. Why can’t we be kind? Kindness is wonderful, but what we are up against isn’t personal racism, it’s systemic racism. It’s the system and fact that police can murder someone and go to trial and not be prosecuted for it. The thing I want people to understand is that voting for policies that are anti-racist and inclusive is kind. Understanding anti-racism and your role in it is kind. Working toward justice is kind. Voting for people and policies that oppress us and separate families, that’s the opposite of kindness. So if kindness is your goal, you need to sit down and think about how my actions work on a systemic level, and then ask if that aligns with your values. 

Many people can get on board when they stop and see that their actions are hurting people, and want to better align their actions with their values. I talked about this on the episode on White Privilege. People get frustrated with the concept of white privilege and acknowledging their own privilege. And in these cases I say: You are mad because it doesn't align with what your values are. So if you can find it in you to understand what your privilege is and then use it, you can better align yourself and the privileges that you hold with what your values are. It’s really a matter of aligning your actions with your values, and when you do that, you realize that justice is the most kind thing that you can do. 

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So again, it goes back to talking to people about lining up their actions and their values: if you value inclusion and compassion, then addressing racism and privilege makes sense, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. And are most people receptive to that?

Many, yes. But then there are also people who don’t. One thing that I heard recently that's given me hope--and has given hope to some of my black friends that I talk to--is that we don't need all white people. I know that sounds kind of dismissive, but we've never needed all white people on board for change to happen. We need good, solid people to stand in solidarity, and there are always going to be white people who aren't going to stand with us. And that's just kind of what we need to accept. But it brings me hope, because otherwise sometimes it feels impossible.

Can you add to that a little bit about how your faith informs your podcast and your work? Because it sounds like it does. 

Yes, I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I am a convert. So my parents are also Christian, but not members of the church. And my faith in Christ is that Jesus was a table flipper. People don't see that Jesus was so radical, he was a change maker. And even if you didn't believe in his divinity, even if you just looked at it as if he was an activist, he stood for justice in every sense. It just makes so much sense to me. Anti-racism work and Jesus are one and the same for me. Jesus mourned with those that mourned, he stood for the marginalized, Christ spent most of his time with marginalized people; he was treated as a marginalized person up until the end. He himself was lynched by the state.

The connection between Jesus and George Floyd, or Jesus and Daunte, or Jesus and Breonna Taylor--you can see Jesus in these people. If you don’t see that, do you really know Jesus? The Christ that I believe in stands for justice, and the Christ that I believe in is anti-racist.

One thing that you have helped me understand is white silence. I first learned about this concept from Layla Saad, who describes white silence as “when people with white privilege stay complicity silent on matters of race and white supremacy.” Basically, just white people being silent about racism.

I think there are a lot of people in my community who think that they are “neutral” or “above the noise” of issues like racism by not acknowledging it, and I hate to say that think I have been that way myself in the past. For example, I notice that on Instagram Stories I’ll post a bunch of photos of my black child, or my mixed-race family, and they get all these likes--but then I’ll do a post about the dangers of white supremacy, and all the sudden the likes fall off. There’s some kind of disconnect there. Can you help explain why silence is problematic? 

One of the biggest things I noticed is that people think that silence means that they don't support anything, that they're not choosing a side. But in reality, as Dr. Beverly, Daniel Tatum always says, the only thing that racism needs to perpetuate is itself.  We don't have to do anything, because it's baked into the systems, so we don't have to do anything to make it keep going. It just goes and goes and goes. She describes it like one of those moving walkways at an airport: it just carries you in a certain direction, and unless you turn around and start walking the other way, we're all going to go to the same place--which is a white supremacy and a racism-dominated society. 

So white people who are silent, and think that by being quiet, they are kind of stopped on the walkway. But they're still being moved towards racism and white supremacy. That's one of the biggest things that I try to help people understand, is that by not choosing a side, you are choosing a side--the side of racism. And inaction is a form of action. That might sound confusing, but when you stop to think about it: if you just continue on with what you're doing, if nothing changes, nothing changes. So yes, white silence is 100% a form of racism, and breaking white solidarity is one of the most powerful things I have seen to fight racism.

Can you explain what it means to “break white solidarity,” and how that’s powerful in fighting racism? A lot of white people that I know feel like they would like to do something, but they are not sure what to do or what that looks like. 

Black people and people of color are always talking about this stuff, and sometimes it feels like we're talking into the void. But when a white person steps up within their own family, or community, they break white solidarity to protect people of color. Dr. King said: “Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, persistent agitation, persistently rising up against the system of evil.” And it's the word “agitation” that sticks out to me--like just being there constantly. It’s reminding people: you can't say that around me, or this doesn't align with our values. This doesn't align with who I know you are. 

I told you briefly at the beginning of our conversation that there had been a Confederate flag in my neighborhood. After the January 6th insurrection, I got a text from my friend whose mom had told her that there were white supremacist groups in our area in Arizona that were doing initiations that weekend, and that they were looking for black families to victimize. Ours is one of the few black families around, and I was scared. We were trying to decide what to do--should we leave the neighborhood and go to an Airbnb? Do we go out of town? And we decided that we wanted to stay in our home because that felt the most safe and close to our support networks. So we stayed in our home, and we were all sleeping in the same room. I brought the children in with us and we all slept in the same room. I’m thinking this is ridiculous, but if something happens, I will never forgive myself. And the very next day, after I got that text, I looked down the street and my neighbor had hung a Confederate flag. It was brand new, like you could tell it had the creases in it, and he had just taken it out of the package and put it up. I was so heartbroken, because this is a neighbor that I know. And I was just like, do you not see that is a threat? And I was terrified, because I know how many guns he keeps in his house. And I started to think, what if he’s one of them? 

So we were locked inside feeling frightened, and I finally called my bishop [leader of the local Mormon church congregation]. And I said, I just need to tell you what's going on. I'm so angry that this is happening. I'm so angry that our congregation literally lives next door to each other in this neighborhood, and everybody has driven by this flag, but nobody has said anything. Either people don't care, or they support it, or they just think oh, that’s too bad. But no one is willing to do anything. I said, my husband cannot go over there, because we're already a target. If we go, we are just poking the bear--it’s not safe.

So my bishop said, I’ll go over there. And he did. 

He took another member of the congregation with him. And the bishop knocked on the door and just said to him, we’re from a local congregation, and we just want to tell you like that that flag is not sending the message that we agree with in this community. And the guy with the flag ripped into him, and yelled at him. Afterwards, my bishop called me and said, “I'm so sorry, I failed. He yelled at us and the flag is still up.” And I said, you don't know what kind of seeds you planted. He yelled at you, but he's going to be thinking about that.

And the next day, the flag was gone. And I never saw it again. And that's the power of white people breaking white solidarity. These two white men went to another white man and said, we do not stand for this in our community. And it was gone. I couldn't have done that--as many podcast episodes as I make, and as much as I try. There are times and places that I cannot make change, and you as white people have to do that. This is a clear example to me of how breaking white solidarity works. 

Thank you for sharing that. I'm so sorry that happened to your family. I think that's a really powerful story for white people to hear.

And to go back to what we were talking about earlier, from what I understand about Jesus, that's what Jesus would do. He would have your back, he would go turn over the table and be like, hey, this is not okay, it’s not right. And I, as a white person, I'm hearing you tell the story and I'm thinking about how this would be a hard thing to do--it would require courage. But it’s the right thing to do. And we need to make a practice of doing these things and do it without being asked to do it by a person of color. 

And it’s not just about the flag coming down. It made me feel like I know there are people in my church and neighborhood that I can trust.

This leads me to talking about parenting, because a lot of parents want their kids to be the kind of people who would be courageous and know how to stand up for others. You start every episode of your podcast by saying that learning how to be inclusive begins in our homes. What would you suggest to our readers who want to teach their kids to be inclusive and educated about racism, but have no idea where to begin? 

Well, the first thing I'll say is that it's never too late. I feel like a lot of people come to me, and they're like, I haven't been doing this. It's never ever too late. But you want to begin as soon as possible. And on the other hand, it’s never too early. If you are a first-time mom who's just pregnant, you want to be thinking about what is the environment that you're bringing your child into. What does it look like? Who is at the table? Who is represented in books, and toys, and art on the walls, and who's not?

And it’s important to include black excellence and black joy. If all children learn about is the struggle, and enslavement, and white children are not seeing people of color in spaces of excellence, then they're going to think that our capacity is just to fight and struggle. When in reality, we have amazing talents and joys and accomplishments outside of fighting racism, which is unfortunately thrust upon us. 

And I’ll just throw in a plug here and say that your Bite-sized Black History program for kids does exactly this. As a parent of a black child, talking about race feels really heavy and intense for me. And when you released your Bite-sized Black History project, with stories about amazing black scientists, and inventors and artists who are often overlooked in our history books, I was like yes, this is exactly the kind of black excellence and joy that I want for my child. 

The struggle is important too, and it will always be there. I’ve explained on my podcast that I did not enjoy learning about Black History in school growing up. Not because Black History is not enjoyable, but because my teachers had left out all of the uplifting parts that we talked about at home. Bite-sized Black History is the program I wish I had when I was young.

There's a little window of time, especially with young children of color, where we can build them up before facing the hard pieces of it. I would say when I was making Bite-sized Black History, I was thinking of like kindergarten or even first grade and up. With my own three-year old, I did the coloring pages but we haven’t listened to it together, because it talks about enslavement, and I don’t want that for her yet, but it’s great for older kids. 

A first step for kids is helping them secure their identity, and understanding who they are. And then the second one is embracing diversity, embracing differences, understanding that differences are constant. Anti-racism educator Britt Hawthorne says you spend the most time on the first two goals, because you can’t fight for justice, or understanding inequity, until you understand who you are, and how you fit in the world. 

If you want to raise kids who can stand in solidarity with others and embrace difference, and can fight for injustice, you need to make sure that their identity isn’t wrapped up in whiteness. If they can start to really embrace their own identity, then they won't feel threatened when we need to break down white supremacy--because they won’t see themselves in it. 

That is so powerful, I just want to repeat it: “If we do the work to make sure that our kids’ identities aren’t wrapped up in whiteness, then they won’t feel threatened when we need to break down white supremacy. Because they won’t see themselves in it.” How would the world be if we did that?? 

Where do we start? 

If you’re looking for suggestions for some of my podcast episodes to listen to with your kids and as a family, as a starting point I would suggest the episode about privilege: “What is Privilege, and What Do I Do With It?” and “How to Talk to Your Children about Racism,” as well as “Racism 101.” I would just remind people that they should listen on their own first so that they can be ready for the questions that their children might have. 

And so I just want to say that that’s what Jasmine made the whole podcast for--for adults to learn and reflect on history and questions about race, so they will be confident and prepared to discuss it. So go listen to the podcast, beginning with Episode 1.

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Matriarchy Report is written by award-winning journalists (and parents) Allison Lichter and Lane Anderson. Find us on Instagram: @matriarchyreport Find us on Twitter: @laneanderson @allisonlichter